(Photographed at Omaha Zoo)
This beautiful bear is the American black bear (Ursus americanus), and they are the only bear native to Missouri. Black bears are the smallest of all the bears found in North America. In Missouri black bears were hunted almost to extinction and were considered extirpated from the state by the 1950s. In the 1960s Arkansas implemented a program to restore the black bear to their state. It is believed that the majority of the bears that currently reside in Missouri are a result of those Arkansas bears. Some DNA testing has been done on Missouri black bears and some unique blood lines have been discovered which lead officials to believe that at least some of the bears found in our state are direct decedents of our original black bear population. Until recent years Missouri black bears were an elusive creature, rarely seen by humans.
With more and more sightings occurring near human activity it has prompted the Missouri Department of Conservation to implement a data study on these elusive bears. The study, which is being funded through the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Restoration program with help from Safari Club International, will provide information about the movement patterns, population densities, habitat preferences and overall numbers of Missouri bears.
The first phase of the current study – which is a joint effort between the MDC , the University of Missouri-Columbia and Mississippi State University – consists of trapping and radio-collaring 13 bears in southwest and south-central Missouri this fall. These bears will be monitored over winter to learn more about denning habits and the time frame of winter denning in Missouri.
In spring of 2011, hair snares at select sites throughout southwest and south-central Missouri will collect data that will help biologists get better estimates of overall population and male/female ratios. In fall 2011, 13 bears will be trapped and radio-collared in southeast Missouri and those bears’ denning habits will be monitored over the winter. The field portion of this project finishes in the spring of 2012 with the setting of hair snares in southeast Missouri.
(Photographed in Tennessee---Cades Cove---Smoky Mountains)
The black bear is the largest and heaviest wild mammal in the state. It has a long muzzle with a straight facial profile; rounded, erect ears; rather short, stout legs; and a very short tail practically concealed in the long, heavy fur. For black bears in Missouri, the fur is predominantly glossy black; the muzzle is brown, and there is usually a white patch on the chest. The sexes look much alike, though females are usually smaller than males. They may weigh up to 800 pounds or in some cases more, but typically males will weigh between 125-550 pounds. The females weigh around 90 to 275 pounds. They will reach lengths up to 6 feet. Their color can vary widely depending upon their range....this includes blond, white, brown, cinnamon, and dark chocolate brown. As mentioned, Missouri bears are mostly jet black in fact 70% of black bears are indeed black. They are very strong creatures and can flip over boulders weighing as much as 325 pounds. They're excellent swimmers and will often swim just for fun, but also to hunt for fish. They can also run rapidly reaching speeds up to 30 mph.
Their generalist nature allows them to take advantage of their environment by feeding on a wider variety of foods. In the wild Black bears eat a variety of foods. Plant matter includes grass, berries and other fruits, various seeds and nuts, the inner bark of trees and roots. Animal food includes ants, bees and their honey, crickets and grasshoppers, fish, frogs, small rodents, fawns, bird eggs and many kinds of carrion. Acorns are an important food source in the fall as bears prepare for winter. As they prepare for hibernation, they may gain as much as 30% of their body weight.
Black Bears are attracted to areas inhabited by humans because of the immediate availability of food. This may be in the form of garbage, garden vegetables and fruits, even pets. There have been reports of these over exuberant bears coming into house through open windows, doggy doors or doors left open. If this happens they will literally raid the pantry. They are very dexterous and can open screw lids on jars and work latches on doors.
(Baby black bear photographed at Cade's Cove---Smoky Mountains)
The American Black Bear is listed with the IUCN as a species of least concern due to their large distribution as well as their large global population estimated to be twice that of all other bear species combined. The black bears are not related to polar bears, brown bears or grizzly bears. All of these bears split from a single species of bear approximately 5 million years ago. The black bears closest living relative is the Asiatic bear. Asiatic and American black bears evolved from Sun Bears approximately 4.58 years ago. After this initial split the American Black Bear then split from the Asian Black Bear approximately 4.08 million years ago.
A few years ago we took a family vacation to the Smoky Mountains and stayed in a cabin not far from Cades Cove. We took an auto tour through the park and were speculating as to whether we would see a bear. We were approximately a mile into the drive when we spotted a large bear reaching up into a tree to feed on the ripened cherries. We drove a little further and came to a creek where a small child was swimming. We told the family there was a bear nearby, and no sooner did we say those words when a yearling cub crossed the creek about 20 feet from where this little boy was swimming. They scooped the boy up and put him in the bed of the truck. We were so excited, not only did we see one bear, but two! We drove on further and noticed a bunch of people pulled off the side of the road. We got out to see what was going on and noticed three bears in a tree. A momma bear and her two cubs. We watched their antics for quite some time, several times covering our eyes as the baby bears nearly fell from the tree branches. This was the highlight of our trip to be able to see so many of these wonderful bears in one location.
I feel honored to live in a state with such a diversified wildlife population. Even though these bears were not photographed in Missouri, I know that they live here and that is enough for me. One day perhaps as I venture to the southern part of Missouri I will be able to witness one of our very own black bears.